The Instruments’ Heather McIntosh has a colorful music history, one that begins (on a major scale) in the ’90s with the Elephant 6 collective. Rotating as member of Elf Power, Circulatory System, Of Montreal and peripheral group Japancakes, her playing can be heard on many an album bearing that psychedelic letterpress logo. And more recently, and perhaps more curiously, she’s played bass for Gnarls Barkley, even appearing on Saturday Night Live with Cee-Lo and Danger Mouse. While this well-packed résumé is a potential testament to the quality of McIntosh’s project choices and work, it is by no means a harbinger of what to expect with her new project.
The Instruments’ new album Dark Småland is still connected to McIntosh’s Elephant 6 past, at least in terms of personnel. The album features, among others, Neutral Milk Hotel’s Jeff Mangum and Will Hart, John Fernandes and Eric Harris from Olivia Tremor Control. Also featured is The Clientele’s Alasdair Maclean, an artist from a band who wasn’t part of the Athens, Ga.-based collective but actually seems to strongly represent the direction that McIntosh has gone by his very presence. The Instruments are not a sunny, fuzzy pop band in the way of The Apples in Stereo or Elf Power. There are few moments of upbeat pop explosion or giddy trip-outs. This is a dark and haunting album of muted tones and melancholy ballads. While The Instruments still call upon inspiration from the ’60s and ’70s, it’s more from the likes of Nico or Fairport Convention than Brian Wilson or Syd Barrett.
Dark Småland is a gorgeous album, one that’s driven largely by McIntosh’s cello, which was a primary fixture in Japancakes as well. Beginning with “Ode to the Sea,” McIntosh & Co. draws the listener into a dimly lit, exotic den in which the accommodations are lush, yet often stark. “Ode to the Sea” falls squarely in the `lush’ camp, floating beautifully along elegant waves of sound, with overlapping backing vocals and cleanly strummed guitar crafting a stunning sound world. “Sounds Electric” has a mysterious allure, with a foreign jangle similar to The Byrds’ “Eight Miles High,” but with less sunshine, and perhaps more hookah smoke.
The line between romanticism and depression becomes blurred in “Mountain Song,” as McIntosh alternately sings “hey boy, will you marry me” and “hey boy, will you bury me.” This is an essential aspect to the album, as it is a dark and at times, even utterly bleak sounding record. And yet there’s something undeniably romantic and sensual. “Pastorale” is a prime example, its minor key melody enough to reduce any listener to tears from its sheer beauty and the sadness it seemingly evokes. “First Signs” is a bit breezier, much like The Clientele, though McIntosh’s cello cuts through the mellow atmosphere with a subtle mystique. And with the aptly titled “Cello Ballad,” McIntosh achieves a new plateau of bleak and gut-wrenching, reaching Nina Nastasia-like levels of gentle abrasion.
With Dark Småland, McIntosh reveals an entirely new aspect to her musical identity, and a surprising one given that she’s played with both Elf Power and Gnarls Barkley. Because of its dark and exotic nature, however, it proves to be fresh and thrilling, no matter how overwhelming the melancholy becomes. It takes a step outside of one’s comfort zone to prove the depths of her creativity, and on Dark Småland, McIntosh has done just that.
The Clientele – The Violet Hour
Beach House – Devotion
Nico – Chelsea Girl
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.